In a dim, basement-level living room, Eunice Mathis Wiggins sits among framed family photos. At 91 years old, Wiggins’s eyesight is failing, but her memory forms a clear picture of the past. That’s why Amy Ammons Garza — who, like Wiggins, is a native of this corner of North Carolina — is here. With a microphone in hand, Garza records a few minutes of the Qualla woman’s story — a piece of a life that might otherwise be forgotten. Soon it will air on the radio program “Stories of Mountain Folk.”
Wiggins’s thick, round accent invites listeners to lean in a little closer. As she speaks, the hills of Cullowhee, Tuckasegee, and Whittier come into view. She recalls walking to school and “slipping off” to collect chestnuts along the way. Moving from one home to another, belongings piled in a covered wagon towed by a single horse. Scavenging the Appalachian hillside “back-a-thar” for medicinal roots as a girl, and as a teen, teaching Sunday school classes to loggers from a nearby camp.
Garza, a storyteller, writer, and lover of all things Appalachia, has listened to stories like this for decades, in between spinning her own tales of mountain life and growing up in Tuckasegee. The stories share a common thread of hard work, food grown on the land, perseverance, and creativity.
Garza and her sister, Doreyl Ammons Cain, co-founded Catch the Spirit of Appalachia (CSA) 23 years ago. In addition to directing various heritage festivals and educational programs throughout western North Carolina, the Sylva-based nonprofit now produces “Stories of Mountain Folk.” The hour-long radio program showcases oral narratives that detail traditions, events, and life stories of mountain people. Artists, farmers, and musicians are favorites, but the program also includes black Appalachian culture, Cherokee history, and mountain folklore.
“We are here to honor and preserve the people who live in Appalachia, to hold local memory in place, and honor our creative spirit,” Garza says. “We’ve heard so many wonderful stories of bravery.” A favorite: a woman who spent years selling eggs and vegetables to local workers. She stuffed the money she made in her stocking until one day, 100 acres went up for sale for the taxes owed on it, $180.
“She paid for the land with her chicken money,” Cain says. “I just love that story.”
“Stories of Mountain Folk” airs on the local AM radio station WRGC Jackson County Radio 540 every Saturday at 9 a.m., and each episode is archived at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.
Storytelling has always been a part of Garza’s life. “Stories of Mountain Folk” reminds her of the wreaths she and Cain used to make with their grandmother.
Their grandmother would cut Dennison crepe paper into petals, then piece the petals together into rosebuds, which they tucked into grapevine with some shiny laurel leaves. Then on Decoration Day, they took the wreaths to the graveyard where their ancestors were buried. “Making those wreaths, we learned to respect those in our family — those who are living and those who are gone,” Garza says.
“‘Stories of Mountain Folk’ is like those crepe paper roses,” she says. “Each story is a rose, each program is an honored wreath, placed in the archives for eternity.”
Current “Stories of Mountain Folk” programs can be found at storiesofmountainfolk.com.
Heidi Coryell Williams has written for Spirit magazine (Southwest Airlines), TOWN, and WNC. Her most recent story for Our State was “A Town of Champions” (November 2012).